The NBA smart rings are helpful but players should be skeptical

Researchers hope wearable sensors can prevent Covid-19's silent spread.

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As the NBA gears up to restart its 2019-2020 season at Walt Disney World, the league released a 100-page safety plan Tuesday that describes life inside Orlando’s “bubble.”

One tool at players’ disposal? Covid-19 tracking “smart rings" that continuously monitor players’ heart rate, body temperature, and breathing patterns.

The lightweight titanium rings, made by the company Oura, claim to predict Covid-19 symptoms three days before they appear, with accuracy rates above 90 percent.

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Physicians say the smart rings could help pinpoint where and how quickly Covid-19 is spreading, but also caution that the smart ring has not been rigorously tested for accuracy. "Smart rings" should not replace public health precautions like social distancing, masks, or regular testing, they say.

"Don't let it give us a false sense of security."

"Just don't let it give us a false sense of security. Don't stop wearing your mask because your Oura ring says you're OK. You know, don't skip testing because everybody's Oura ring says they're fine," Darria Long, an emergency room physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, told CNN.

How does the "smart ring" work? — The Oura "smart ring" utilizes infrared LED technology, NTC temperature sensors, and motion sensors like an accelerometer and a gyroscope to continuously capture body measurements. The ring, which retails for between $299 to $399, feeds this data into artificial intelligence guided models to predict the onset of COVID-19 related symptoms like fevers, coughing, breathing problems, and fatigue.

The Oura ring is designed to be worn during sleep and tracks users' heart beat, movement and temperature to provide a "holistic" view of health and sleep patterns.


Artificial intelligence algorithms will then harness this data to calculate a player's "illness probability score," which could identify people infected with Covid-19, even before they show symptoms. Teams won't have access to these scores, the Wall Street Journal reports, but they could be informed if the numbers suggest early signs of illness. The data could lead to behavioral tweaks like self isolation or testing for potentially infected players.

The Oura ring isn't the only wearable device the NBA is harnessing in an effort to keep players, coaches, and staff safe. The league is utilizing smart thermometers and pulse oximeters, as well as Disney MagicBands and proximity alarms, which beep every time people violate the six-feet rule for too long.

Wearable devices may help prevent Covid-19's silent spread, which could turn Disney's Covid-19 free "bubble" into a viral hotspot.

Tech v.s. Covid-19 — Oura rings are part of a wave of big tech pivoting to fight Covid-19. Researchers hope the constant stream of data from FitBits, Apple Watches, and Oura rings will help fight Covid-19 but researchers have yet to publish peer-reviewed data on how or even if, they work for this purpose.

Oura's smart rings were originally designed to track sleep. But with the onset of Covid-19, the company partnered with West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RNI) and WVU Medicine to pivot the wearable devices to monitor potential Covid-19 symptoms.

At the end of May, the team announced early results derived from 600 health care professionals and first responders. Based on the preliminary data, the Oura ring is capable of predicting Covid-19 related symptoms up to three days in advance of symptoms showing up. However, the study's full results have not been published or peer reviewed.

The University of California, San Francisco, has also recruited thousands of health care employees and adult volunteers for an ongoing study analyzing how wearable sensors like the Oura ring monitor Covid-19 symptoms. The team has yet to publish the results.

Some scientists say there is preliminary data suggesting wearable sensors work — albeit imperfectly.

“I haven’t seen that subtlety embraced by most tech companies,” said Ben Smarr, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who is involved in the UCSF study, told the Washington Post. “I’m wary because I don’t want this to be used to sell people a false solution or false hope.”

Currently, the Oura device is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to monitor health data. In 2018, the FDA approved two Apple apps to monitor for atrial fibrillation, a common heart rhythm irregularity that can lead to stroke, as well as unusually slow or unusually fast heart rates.

Oura rings are optional for players' use, and not all players are jumping on board. Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma voiced concerns about the league's use of the Oura ring Tuesday.

On top of wearable devices, the NBA also outlined an extensive framework of widespread testing, infection protocols, and controlled movement and activities throughout the "bubble." Anthony Fauci, the nation's top expert on infectious diseases said that he approves of the NBA's restart plan, calling it "quite creative" and a possible blueprint for other professional sports leagues to follow.

Ultimately, the NBA's restart, slated for July 30, offers a unique testing ground for researchers to determine which interventions, including the Oura ring, make a meaningful difference.

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